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It’s just a little blood: Bill Lustig’s ‘Maniac’ (1980)

I love New York. No, I don’t mean the real New York, not the modern New York, but that legendary, dangerous, terrifying, otherworldly New York of the 1970s and early 1980s. I love the New York artists of Patti Smith, Richard Hell and Lydia Lunch. I love the New York bands of the Ramones, the Velvet Underground and Suicide. I love the New York films Taxi Driver (1976), Ms .45 (1981) and Basket Case (1982). And I love Richard Kern, Abel Fererra, and Bill Lustig. I grew up in a small town in Tennessee, and New York City was like a mythological place where everything was happening. All the best sitcoms were in New York. The entire Marvel Universe was centered in New York. There was snow and skyscrapers, and it was massive. Before I really even knew what I wanted in life, I knew I wanted to move to New York City. I gravitated to crime and action films set in the 1970s: The French Connection (1971), The Warriors (1979), Escape From New York (1981) and Death Wish (1974). I especially loved the Maniac Cop films written by Larry Cohen (The Stuff, Q; The Winged Serpent, It’s Alive) and directed by Bill Lustig. Being a slasher kid, binging on the Fridays and Nightmares and Halloweens of the time, Maniac Cop married two of my biggest fictional obsessions.

The only other film I knew Lustig had made (this is the pre-internet days of the late ’80s/early ’90s) was called Maniac (1980). The only thing I knew about Maniac was that it had a king hell reputation as a gory, fucked-up urban slasher movie, and the only scene I’d ever seen was the amazing shotgun to the head created by Tom Savini (Dawn of the Dead, Friday the 13th). Savini played the role of the victim, who is in the car with a woman. He turns on the headlights revealing the film’s title character, who charges on to the hood of the car, aims his shotgun and blows Savini’s head apart. It is an amazing effect, rivaling the wizardry of Dick Smith’s shocking exploding head from David Cronenberg’s Scanners (1981).

Where I grew up, Maniac was impossible to find. None of the rental shops had it, it never played on cable. In my mind, it and Cannibal Holocaust (1980) — another notorious film I could never find — developed this mythological status as something so incredibly depraved and evil. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to find a copy, and at this point I had seen Faces of Death (1978), Last House on the Left (1972), Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1986) and I Spit on Your Grave (1978).

It actually wasn’t until the remake was coming out that I tracked down a copy. I couldn’t have been more wrong in my preconceived notions. Yes, Maniac is a rough watch. It earns its reputation, but I didn’t expect to find the title character, Frank Zito, an almost pitiable character in the vein of Anthony Perkins’ portrayal of Norman Bates in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960).

Portraying Zito was the late Joe Spinell, who had appeared in the first two Godfather films, the first two Rocky films, Taxi Driver, and Cruising (1980). He co-wrote Maniac with C.A. Rosenberg (who appears to have no other films to his credit). Lustig was a great lover of film, but broke into the industry through porn, as did Abel Ferrerra. The profits Lustig made on 1977’s Hot Honey financed Maniac, and they shot from October 1979 through mid-January 1980. The film is as much a psychological horror film as it is a slasher, but you have to bear in mind — when the film went into production in 1979 — the slasher movie was barely a thing. John Carpenter’s Halloween (1978) had come out the year before and Bob Clark’s Black Christmas five years before that. The next major player in the burgeoning sub-genre, Friday the 13th (1980), went into production in the summer of 1979 and premiered one day before Maniac on May 9, 1979. What a slasher was or could be was a wide-open road for Lustig and company, but nothing happens in a vacuum.

Lustig was clearly a fan of Dario Argento, and learned well from his films, but Lustig flipped the giallo. He put us in the head of the killer, rather than a would-be victim or amateur detective trying to track him down. This would probably be more influenced by Psycho. Still Maniac is a unique beast. Outside of the odd Henry, we the audience rarely find ourselves fully immersed in the inner world of the antagonist. In the case of Henry, it creates an almost combative relationship between audience and director because we are being made complicit in the horror when everyone is just a victim, and we have no one to root for. Henry director John McNaughton caught shit for this. But even comparisons to Henry are tenuous. Henry Lee Lucas is dumb, evil, white trash. A living embodiment of nihilism. Frank Zito is a sick man, who does what he does out due to unchecked psychosis and unresolved childhood abuse. He is not incapable of love, and he certainly knows the difference between right and wrong, but he lives in alternate reality and is driven by his inner demons.

So, on the surface, we have a low-budget shock fest full of gore and misogyny, but peel back the dermis and examine the meat on the bone. There you have a complicated portrait of mental illness, loneliness and of marginalized people living on the tattered edges of reality. And this is to say nothing of the amazing tonal shifts, camera work, set pieces and special effects pulled off on a miniscule budget. Lustig crafts a stalk-and-slash film that does a hard shift into a romance. Although, one of the things that makes it such a hard shift is when Zito arrives at Anna’s — legendary Hammer actress Caroline Munroe — apartment to see her photographs. Claiming to be an artist himself, this scene with Zito plays like a setup in a porno. Maybe Lustig’s previous films were still influencing him. However, it does even out through Spinell and Munroe’s great performances into a real character drama before shifting again into a weird, gothic horror flick and then again into a pure proto-splatter punk finale.

Spinell and Munroe would go on to work together again in The Last Horror Film (1982) — released in some markets as Maniac 2, but other than cast there is no connection — and Starcrash (1978). Lustig went on to work with Spinell one more time in his urban revenge thriller Vigilante (1982). Larry Cohen met with Lustig and asked him why he never made a sequel to Maniac, but it just wasn’t something Lustig was seeing. That conversation was where their collaboration on Maniac Cop was born which spawned two sequels.

After an initial release on VHS in 1981, Maniac didn’t get a re-release until 2001 from Anchor Bay and then again on Blu-ray in 2010 through Lustig’s own label, Blue Underground. In 2012, the inevitable remake hit the big screen, starring Elijah Wood — which surprised many people; those people never saw him in Sin City — and was directed by Frank Khalfoun (P2) and produced by Alexandre Aja (Haute Tension, The Hills Have Eyes remake). The remake relocated the story to modern day Los Angeles, and nearly the whole film was shown through Zito’s POV. The trick was neat, the soundtrack was amazing and Khalfoun must have been an Argento fan himself because his influence is far more evident than Lustig’s. This is where my criticism starts, but I don’t want to dwell on the negative. Maniac 2012 is a worthy remake and a nearly successful experiment in filmmaking.

Last year Blue Underground released a 4K three-disc special edition of the original with a slew of great extras. The best of which is Returning to the Scene of the Crime, where Lustig drives us around to shooting locations and tells a bunch of great stories. While Arrow special edition restoration of Basket Case had to get the nod for re-release of the year, this edition of Maniac —not to mention Blue Underground’s 4k three-disc special edition of Lucio Fulci’s Zombie — was right on its heels, in terms of importance as a document of the aforementioned mythological New York and of the artistic merits of this grindhouse classic.

Coinciding with this massive re-release, Eibon Press/VHS Comics released the first of a three-issue miniseries. It did not just adapt Lustig’s film, but actually expanded on the story and even crossed over into Lucio Fulci’s New York Ripper in a sleazy grindhouse Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman. It has a shock ending that will thrill any horror comic fan. Later this year, in addition to their other Fulci projects, Eibon/VHS will release their adaptation of New York Ripper. Additionally, Blue Underground will release a 4K three-disc special edition of Ripper as well. Written by Stephen Romano with art by Pat Carabajal, Eibon puts as much care into each of their comic releases as Blue Underground does their films. The comics are at least 40 pages, packed in a cardboard sleeve like a vinyl record and shrink wrapped with stickers, bookmarks and other goodies.

Romano and company take us even deeper into Zito’s inner world, taking the violence and sleaze to dizzying heights, but still honoring the deep character study Lustig and Spinell crafted. Before he died in 1989, Spinell had spent years trying to get a sequel made, teaming up with Combat Shock director Rick Giovinazzo, to make the short film Mr. Robbie Maniac 2. Though his dream went unfulfilled, I’d like to think Spinell would be proud as hell of what Maniac became and what it means to fans around the world.

About Tim Murr

Founded the horror culture blog Stranger With Friction. Author of Motel On Fire and City Long Suffering. Contributor at Biff Bam Pop and formerly Popshifter. Has eight cats.

One comment

  1. You forgot about the Elite Laserdisc release in 95.

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